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New York City welcomes robotaxis – but only with safety drivers

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New York City announced a new permit system for companies wanting to test autonomous vehicles on its roads, including a requirement that a human safety driver be seated behind the wheel at all times.

As cities like San Francisco continue to grapple with problems posed by fully driverless rental vehicles, New York City is trying to get ahead of the problem by outlining what it calls “a rigorous permitting program” that, she said, will ensure that applicants are “ready to test their technology in the nation’s most challenging urban environment, safely and competently.”

“This technology is coming whether we like it or not,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement to The edge“so we’re going to make sure we do it right.”

“This technology is coming whether we like it or not”

The requirements would exclude companies without prior experience testing autonomous vehicles in other cities. Applicants will be required to submit information from previous tests, including details of crashes that have occurred and how often safety drivers are required to take control of the vehicle (also known in California as “take-outs). And in what is sure to be the most controversial provision, fully driverless vehicles will not be allowed to conduct testing on public city roads; only vehicles with safety drivers will be permitted.

A small handful of companies, including Waymo and Cruise, have deployed driverless vehicles, also known as Level 4 automation, but traffic obstruction and safety concerns have stalled their deployment.

Last October, a driverless Cruise vehicle dragged a pedestrian more than 20 feet to the sidewalk of a San Francisco street, prompting regulators to suspend the company’s operating license. Several months later, a driverless Waymo vehicle hit a cyclist, slightly injuring him. San Francisco city officials criticized both companies for blocking roads and obstructing buses and emergency vehicles.

New York City hopes to avoid similar problems by requiring companies to maintain safety drivers in vehicles at all times. Under Adams’ proposal, businesses would still have to obtain a permit from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Additionally, applicants will be required to provide details on how their safety drivers are hired and trained and “certify that they will follow recent best practices from the Society of Automotive Engineers.”

New York City hopes to avoid similar problems by requiring companies to maintain safety drivers in vehicles at all times.

Naturally, autonomous vehicles would be required to comply with all applicable traffic rules and regulations. Likewise, companies should submit “assurance protocols on how the operator will compensate for any throttling or failure of the AV system and proactively intervene to avoid potential failures.”

Data from the AV tests will eventually be available on the city’s Open Data portal, a spokesperson said. As part of the application process, the city’s Department of Transportation will consider requests from applicants to decline the release of certain data for privacy reasons.

While other states have become hotbeds for AV testing, New York is a bit of a ghost town. That could be partly explained by the state’s strict rules, which include requiring safety drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times. State law originally required a police escort, but a renewal of the law several years ago removed that provision.

In 2017, Cruise announced plans to test its autonomous vehicles in lower Manhattan, but those plans were later abandoned without any explanation as to why. Boston-based Optimus Ride has tested autonomous shuttles in Brooklyn, but only on private roads within the borough’s Navy Yard. Mobileye, a division of Intel, also tested a few vehicles in the city. And Waymo said it would bring its manually driven vehicles for mapping purposes.

Automakers and tech companies testing AVs tend to flock to states with more favorable regulations (like Arizona and Texas) or to places closer to their headquarters (like California). New York is neither, but it represents one of the largest taxi markets in the world and is therefore an ideal target for robo-taxi companies.

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